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Remembering a Doolittle Raider

Thomas Griffin died in late February - he was one of 80 American servicemen who flew a legendary mission in World War Two.    They were known as Doolittle's Raiders.    Griffin lived in Cincinnati and he
was 96 years old.  Now only four members of that elite group survive.

WYSO aviation commentator Dan Patterson knew Griffin and tells us his story.

In March of 1942 this country was at war.  It effected everyone's life.  A total war being fought East and West of our shores.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh, the wreckage still on the bottom of the harbor.  Along the Atlantic coast German U-boats were sinking American ships, sending to the bottom in flames often visible from the shore.

Tom Griffin, along with other volunteers, was training with Col. Jimmy Doolittle in Florida to bomb Japan.  Just four months after Pearl Harbor; when no one thought it was possible to answer the attack, they were learning to fly ground-based bombers, meant to use a runway, from the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier.  Their target was Tokyo.  Jimmy Doolittle, already a legendary airman, was leading the charge.

The force would take off on a carrier at sea, attack targets in Japan and then fly hundreds of miles to China. There was no room for error.

Sixteen B-25s would take off.  Tom, the navigator of the ninth, was perfecting the techniques of over water navigation and the art of fuel management, essential on a mission of such long range.  The force would take off on a carrier at sea, attack targets in Japan and then fly hundreds of miles to China.  There was no room for error.  The mission was a huge effort, and while the point of the spear was the eighty men who flew the 16 bombers, the US Navy sent a task force of sixteen ships that carried 10,000 sailors to get them there.

On April 12, 1942, approaching Japan, the task force was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat.  They had to take off hundreds of miles earlier than planned, but they successfully dropped their bombs, sending a message that the USA was a force to be reckoned with.

One B-25 flew to Russia; the others toward China.  All the bombers were lost as their fuel ran out, some along the coast. Tom Griffins's B-25 flew 300 miles inland before the crew bailed out.  Tom always noted with modesty that "a surprising tailwind" had saved them.

The Doolittle Raiders passed into legend immediately.  Most escaped, some where captured, and some executed.  Tom and all of the other Raiders got home and were given a few weeks leave and were sent back to war. Thirteen would be killed in action before the war ended.  Of the sixteen ships of the task force, seven were sunk before July, 1943. 

Tom Griffin was sent to Europe.  In that year he was on his twenty-third mission.  His B-26 was shot down, and he bailed out again and this time was taken prisoner.  He was a POW in a German camp for nearly two years before the war ended.  Griffin had said that the Germans planned to execute all of its POWs on April 30, 1945, the day the Allies liberated the camp.  He told me that the sun had never shone so bright as it did that day.

Tom Griffin.jpg
Credit Dan Patterson
Tom Griffin in 1999

Tom came home and went about having the great American life.  He lived in Cincinnati with his wife Esther, raised two sons, opened an accounting business and lived quietly in Green Township.  Never accepting the role of hero, he always said, "I was just doing my job."

I got to know Tom and made his portrait more than once.  He had a good memory and loved to share his stories.  Tom planned on living to be 100 years old.  A few months ago, he said he might have to eat his words. 

So some evening in the next few days raise a glass and celebrate the life of Major Tom Griffin.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Support for aviation programming on WYSO comes from The National Aviation Heritage Alliance.